One of the most treasured finds for a Pacific beachcomber are Japanese fishing floats, bulbous blue and green glass orbs washed up inconspicuously on the beach like massive translucent marbles.
You’re far less likely to find antique floats washed ashore these days, but if you combed the beaches of Lincoln City before the pandemic, you’d have a chance to come across something similar and no less coveted.
Glass floats were once commonly attached as markers to nets and pots of the Japanese and other Pacific anglers. They would often break free and go adrift, eventually showing up on beaches in the Pacific Northwest.
The North Lincoln County Historical Museum has a large collection of such floats in all shapes, sizes and nationalities. Many were donated by private collectors, including some rare American-made floats, which briefly saw use before the introduction of plastic.
Most floats are now plastics and Styrofoam, and glass fishing floats have become relics of a different era. Those few still adrift at sea often find their way to Alaska, rather than the Oregon coast.
But since the dawn of the century, Lincoln City has kept the tradition of combing the beach for these alien orbs alive with the Finders Keepers program, which places colorful decorative glass floats on the beaches of Lincoln City for visitors and locals alike to stumble upon.
The program began 20 years ago as the Millennium Floats event. The city commissioned a local glass artist to create floats that were placed on the beach for people to find, like they once did fishing floats.
The event proved so popular the city made it annual, commissioning thousands of floats since, with the amount made and placed corresponding to the number of the current year.
Ed Dreistadt, director of Explore Lincoln City, said when the city was trying to create a unified image for the area, the Finders Keepers often came up as one of the most recognizable attractions and has since become intertwined with the city’s image. He said the program is well known across the country, drawing tourists throughout the year, and it has even inspired similar events on the East Coast.
“It took off and became a signature promotion for us,” said Liz Francis, executive assistant to the director of Explore Lincoln City. “Originally they weren’t numbered or registrable and were just novelty items made by one artist, and now it’s progressed into a huge thing. People really embraced it, and it just grew and grew.”
Once found, Finders Keepers floats can be registered using a number on the bottom, which helps track where they end up after being placed on the beach. Since the introduction of phone and text registration, Francis estimates around 50 percent of the floats end up registered.
Whenever there’s a big storm, Dreistadt said they see an uptick in registrations from out of the area for floats that weren’t found in Lincoln City and instead were taken out to sea by the tide and washed up somewhere else.
A 2009 float recently showed up on a beach in Yachats, and a few years back, a woman from Bristol, England called to say she had found one of the floats on a beach nearly 5,000 miles away.
“We called NOAA in Newport and asked if it was possible that a float from Lincoln City could have ended up in England, and they said it was possible and currents could have taken it all the way over there,” Dreistadt said. “One of the more interesting theories they came up with is that it could have been swallowed by a whale and regurgitated somewhere near the Arctic Circle.”
Francis said there is a common misconception the floats are donated, when they are actually purchased by the city from artists who submit samples and are awarded bids. Most are local glass artists, though artists from other parts of Oregon and beyond occasionally put in a bid and are accepted.
“There are different artists throughout the years who are chosen, and different ones have come and gone, though we have our rocks, our foundational artists that are there every year,” Francis said.
Traditional floats still make an appearance as part of the program, as well, usually in conjunction with the city’s antique week.
“There’s a guy up in Alaska that sells us some he finds in coves or wherever,” Dreistadt said. “They’re the original antique Japanese floats, and if you look on the back you can find the Japanese characters that tell you what factory they were made in.”
The floats are dropped on the beach by an undercover group known as the “Finders Keepers Fairies,” the identities of which are a closely guarded secret in Lincoln City to help keep the locations of the floats secret.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the traditional method of Finders Keepers has been put on hold and has instead gone online, asking those interested to provide their contact information and answer a trivia question to be entered into a drawing instead of coming to comb the beach.
After 31 weeks, Dreistadt said the online program had over 70,000 unique weekly entries from 25 different states.
Assuming the pandemic begins to wane during the next year, Dreistadt hopes to bring the traditional program back to the beaches by next fall.
For more information, go online at www.oregoncoast.org.